Year in review: Albert Lea school facilities upgrades top year of news

Published 9:03 pm Thursday, December 27, 2018

Every community has its share of big stories, and Albert Lea is no different. Throw in the mix an election, and things get even more interesting.

The Tribune editor, publisher and reporters sat down at the beginning of December to look back through the big stories of the year and narrow that list to the top 10 with several honorable mentions.

This year was the first year of the dredging of Fountain Lake, the closing of a few major businesses in Albert Lea and the ongoing discussion and eventual selection of the new Albert Lea fire station. Plans continued moving forward with the transition of services through Mayo Clinic Health System, and after 20 years of owning the Freeborn National Bank building, the city sold a portion of the building to local technology company Mortarr.

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What stood out to Tribune staff the most, however, was the special election and subsequent start of work for the Albert Lea Area Schools facilities upgrades.

The upgrades will affect more than simply this generation.

Here is how the news of 2018 stacked up:

Albert Lea school board members Ken Petersen, Dave Klatt and Neal Skaar, and Albert Lea Area Schools Superintendant Mike Funk and Deputy Superintendant Lori Volz view polling results as they come in from the special election in May at the Freeborn County Government Center. – Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

1. Voters approve a $24.6 million Albert Lea Area Schools referendum; plans move forward for facility upgrades

Three months after a community survey aimed to capture community feedback about Albert Lea school district athletic facilities, school board members took a proposal for facility updates to the community in January in a special board meeting.

The proposal included a list of updates to Hammer Complex — affecting football, soccer and softball fields, as well as the home stands and a new, two-story field house — an addition to Halverson Elementary School that would increase gym space and school security and finishing two tasks at Albert Lea High School that were not completed when it was built in 2000.

In February, the board voted 5-1 to bring the $24.6 million school referendum to the community in a special election in May.

Albert Lea School district leaders said the 20-year general obligation building bond would essentially replace debt rolling off from when Albert Lea High School was built, so taxpayers should not see a net increase in taxes because of the project.

District leaders hosted a series of public meetings to inform the community of plans for the project before the measure came to a vote May 8, and a group of residents called community members and encouraged people to support the plans.

Opponents questioned the pricetag of the project and  said they wished they had options on which portions to approve.

The measure ultimately passed on a 250-vote margin, with 2,148 people voting yes, and 1,898 people voting no.

Demolition on the stadium and field house began in November, and photos of the crushed stadium spread quickly across social media. Current and former Albert Leans shared their memories of the stadium.

District officials have said construction is slated to take place during much of 2019, with most of the work at Hammer Complex expected to be mostly completed by September 2019.

Sediment dredged from Fountain Lake is transported by pipe to a confined disposal facility north of Interstate 90. – Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

2. Dredging begins on Fountain Lake

After years of planning, dredging started this summer on Fountain Lake’s Edgewater Bay.

The dredge, under the direction of dredging and marine construction company J.F. Brennan, arrived at the Edgewater Bay boat ramp May 30 and began its first day of dredging June 13.

According to Shell Rock River Watershed District officials, the company removed roughly 300,000 cubic yards of sediment this year and is expected to continue the first phase of the work through 2019.

Operator Wesley Groth runs the dredge in September on Fountain Lake. This was the first year of dredging on Fountain Lake. – Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

Sediment is being pumped to a confined disposal facility north of Interstate 90, which is used to settle the sediment and siphon off the water.

The Watershed District board in October set bidding for the second contract, which includes dredging about 700,000 cubic yards of sediment out of the western portion of Fountain Lake. This portion of the lake is scheduled to be completed in 2020.

Watershed District Administrator Andy Henschel said four bids were submitted for this phase, and a committee was slated to make a recommendation to the board in January.

Shelving and mannequins were for sale at the Albert Lea Herberger’s in August on the store’s last day. – Sarah Stultz/Albert Lea Tribune

3. Herberger’s, two pharmacies announce businesses will close their doors

Albert Lea and the surrounding area were disappointed when The Bon-Ton Stores Inc., owner of Herberger’s in Albert Lea, in April announced it would close all of its stores nationwide as part of a liquidation of the company’s assets.

Bon-Ton operated 250 stores in 23 states in the northeast, Midwest and upper Great Plains under the Bon-Ton, Herberger’s, Younkers, Bergner’s, Boston Store, Carson’s and Elder-Beerman nameplates. The stores offered apparel and accessories for women, men and children, as well as cosmetics and home furnishings.

Albert Lea’s Herberger’s had been an anchor store at Northbridge Mall for decades since the mall’s creation, and the announcement caused sadness and disappointment for residents.

After four months of liquidation sales, the store had its last day in Albert Lea Aug. 27.

In addition to the Herberger’s closure, there were a couple other notable closures. Residents found out in September that Sterling Pharmacy would close its doors later in the month. The business had been in Albert Lea since 1962.

Sterling Pharmacy in Albert Lea closed its doors Sept. 22. – Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

Shopko Pharmacy likewise announced in December it would close its Albert Lea location, along with several others across the country. Forty-two of the pharmacy locations were sold to Kroger, and 22 were sold to Hy-Vee. Albert Lea’s Shopko Pharmacy had been in place since 1985.

Prescriptions for local customers from both Shopko and Sterling pharmacies  were transferred to Hy-Vee.

In the midst of the losses, the city contracted with Retail Strategies LLC to promote the community and its retail opportunities.

City leaders announced in December the firm had in the first six months engaged 22 retailers, five of which were “very interested in Albert Lea.”

Of the 22 retailers, there are both regional and national companies.

The Albert Lea City Council selected land east of the Freeborn County Law Enforcement Center as the location for the new Albert Lea fire station. It has been in City Hall. – Tribune file photo

4. Plans for the new Albert Lea fire station move forward

A new Albert Lea fire station has been a point of discussion for a few years, but this year that discussion moved forward in a big way.

After much debate about where the station should be located — east of the Freeborn County Law Enforcement Center, on the East Main Street corridor near the former Domino’s building or at Blazing Star Landing — the Albert Lea City Council in September voted 4-3 to place the station near the Law Enforcement Center off of Newton Avenue.

Law enforcement personnel expressed support for placing the fire station on Newton Avenue because of the benefits of having first responders co-locate. An emergency operations center used by law enforcement agencies is expected to be included at the station.

The council on Dec. 11 awarded a $7.96 million contract for construction of the facility to Owatonna-based Mohs Contracting, and the city then began moving forward with purchase agreements of properties where the station will be built.

City leaders have stated previously the fire station is slated to be completed in December 2019, with move-in the same month.

Albert Lea Mayor Vern Rasmussen Jr. makes a brief speech for supporters on election night at 112 on Broadway after finding out he was re-elected. – Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

5. Albert Lea mayoral race stays close through primary, general election; Rasmussen wins

There always seems to be one race that draws more attention than others each election cycle, and this year was no different. At the top of interest for many was the Albert Lea mayoral race between incumbent Mayor Vern Rasmussen Jr. and former Third Ward Councilor George Marin.

After Rasmussen came out on top in the primary election in August by 120 votes, campaigns for both candidates ramped up through door-to-door campaigns, visits to community events, advertising, social media and other outlets.

Rasmussen highlighted the good things accomplished in the community in recent years and his plans to continue that positive movement.

He stated during the campaign season that the top issue facing Albert Lea is growth. He said the city needs to evaluate how it can create chances for industries and businesses to build in Albert Lea and spoke highly of the city’s 10-year financial management plan. He also spoke of reducing flooding, increasing tax base and continuing a positive business climate.

Jill Marin rubs her husband’s back after the watch party at Country Inn & Suites learned of George Marin’s loss in the mayoral race in November. – Sarah Kocher/Albert Lea Tribune

Marin advocated for rebuilding the local economy and being a voice for those who think they don’t have a voice in city government.

He campaigned on improving the city’s business environment and speaking out against Mayo Clinic Health System’s decision to transition most inpatient services to Austin.

The two men shared their views on their campaign Facebook pages, in the newspaper, during visits to residents and at a forum sponsored by the Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce.

When the general election rolled around, the race continued to be tight, but Rasmussen captured his fourth term as mayor by less than 200 votes — 3,804 votes, or 51.3 percent, to 3,622 votes, or 48.59 percent.

Marin won in all wards except for Ward 1, where Rasmussen won by 470 votes.

Incumbents also won in all of the other council seats up for election.

The city sold a portion of the former Freeborn National Bank building in November. – Sarah Stultz/Albert Lea Tribune

6. City sells portion of former Freeborn National Bank building

Twenty years after the city purchased the former Freeborn National Bank building and adjacent Jacobsen Apartments building, it closed on the sale of a portion of the bank building in November to Albert Lea-based Mortarr.

Mortarr, an online inspiration gallery and networking platform developed exclusively for the commercial construction and design industry, now owns the main level, mezzanine, basement and second floor of the building. The city still owns the third and fourth floors of the building, along with the adjacent Jacobsen Apartments building, though there will be options for the company to purchase those in the future based on the company’s growth.

The sale — for $100,000 — came after the city in 2006 spent about $2 million to restore the exterior of the building, including tuckpointing, a new roof, a skylight and new water, sewer and electrical service to the building, among other improvements.

The city previously worked with a Kansas-based developer to turn the building into housing, but the project was unable to obtain tax credits to make it feasible.

Mortarr co-founder Steve Pulley stated in a previous interview with the Tribune that the company hopes to have 34 employees when it moves into its new space in the building.

Kim Jameson holds Rolo, one of her cats, during an interview in May. She said she had 10 cats registered as emotional support cats. – Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

7. Hartland woman fights to keep cats; more than 150 dogs seized from Worth County breeding facility

Two stories involving animals dominated the news for several months in 2018.

The first story was with Hartland resident Kim Jameson, who accused the city of Hartland of improperly limiting the number of cats she could have in her home above the city’s maximum two-cat requirement.

Jameson reportedly signed an agreement in June 2017 that the 10 cats she had could be grandfathered in as long as she erected a fence and her cats were spayed and neutered.

The city of Hartland took court action against Jameson, claiming she did not follow the agreement and allegedly continued attracting cats by leaving out food.

Jameson claimed the cats are important for her and give her emotional support, as she has a history of anxiety and depression. She said she had documentation from her doctors that showed how the cats help her.

Freeborn County District Court Judge Ross Leuning ruled against Jameson  in September and ordered her to reduce the number of cats in her home to two.

After Jameson did not follow the order, the Animal  Humane Society in Golden Valley, under the direction of the Albert Lea Police Department, conducted a search warrant at Jameson’s home in November and ultimately seized 16 cats. In addition, a handful of feral cats were not able to be retrieved.

Jameson sought emergency relief against the seizure through her lawyer in December in court, claiming she should get the cats back.

Hartland Mayor Deb Flatness said Jameson was continuing to feed cats in the city and attracting skunks, opossums, raccoons and even coyotes to the city.

Leuning had not issued an order as of press time.

ASPCA workers remove dogs from a puppy mill in Worth County. – Photo courtesy ASPCA

The second story highly talked about in 2018 was the November seizure of 154 Samoyeds from White Fire Kennels, a dog breeding operation in Manly, Iowa.

The dogs were seized by the Worth County Sheriff’s Office and American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, who described the animals as living in “appalling and overcrowded conditions and exhibiting signs of neglect with no access to clean water.”

Owner Barbara Kavars claimed she did not neglect the dogs and has asked the Worth County Magistrate Court to allow her to keep nine dogs and four cats that had been seized.

Kavars has not yet been charged with a crime, but the ASPCA has said charges are pending.

Kavars said she began to struggle with the upkeep of the facility after her husband was diagnosed with a brain tumor and ultimately died in 2017.

Magistrate Douglas Krull had not yet ruled on the 13 animals as of press time for this publication.

Marchers with Save Our Health Care traveled to Rochester in May for a protest. – Sam Wilmes/Albert Lea Tribune

8. Mayo Clinic Health System continues transition of services; residents continue efforts under Save Our Health Care

The year 2017 ended with the transition of Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea’s inpatient care unit to Austin, and inpatient surgeries followed in the beginning of 2018. 

In August, the health system announced an $11.2 million investment into a family birthing center and a two-story connecting link between the main clinic entrance and the hospital on the Austin campus.

The private patient rooms at the new inpatient psychiatric unit at Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea all feature either a view of Fountain Lake or of a new courtyard. – Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

In the fall, the new inpatient behavioral health unit moved from Austin to Albert Lea.

Health system leaders along with city and county leaders took part in facilitated dialogue to discuss the transition, though the county withdrew from the sessions in September.

Mayo announced in the fall that the clinics in Alden and Kiester will no longer have on-site practitioners after Jan. 1.

While all the changes were continuing to take place at Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea and Austin, the grassroots organization formed to protect Albert Lea’s health care services, Save Our Hospital, pressed forward with regular meetings, weekly protests at New Denmark Park, a protest in Rochester and a visit to the Capitol.

The new inpatient psychiatric unit at Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea features a secure courtyard patients can visit. – Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

Partway through the year, the group changed its name to Save Our Healthcare with a shift in focus. Instead of attempting to get Mayo to stop the transition, it is now focused on retaining health care services in Albert Lea and reducing health care costs — likely through a second provider.

Looking forward, the hospital system has stated medical and surgical hospitalizations will move next year from Albert Lea to Austin, and childbirth services will be the last to move to Austin in 2020. 


9. District, community focuses on bullying prevention

Albert Lea Area Schools had an increased focus on bullying this year for all age ranges of students, with several parent meetings and other school assemblies. The district received a grant to participate in the No Bully program, partners of which include ESPN, MLB, Burger King, TOMs and more, after coverage in the Tribune about the district bullying policy.

The district hosted a community meeting in October to share steps of what the district is doing to address students’ social-emotional needs.

No Bully facilitated a parent workshop Nov. 1 at Southwest Middle School, and separately Minnesota Vikings mascot Viktor the Viking visited Hawthorne Elementary School in October to teach the importance of not bullying during National Bullying Prevention Month.

In December, the district rolled out an anonymous bullying reporting system, which district officials said they hoped would increase student comfort in reporting bullying. The system started on the district’s website, and is expected to follow in an app.

Though many of these events and initiatives were planned early in the year, several took place in the weeks following the death of 14-year-old student Pla Mo.

The community was devastated following his death and many gathered during a community vigil one evening at Morin Park to stand up against bullying and to advocate for suicide awareness.

District Superintendent Mike Funk said the death of the student, who took his own life, caused soul-searching for members of the district and the community.


10. St. John’s on Fountain Lake water samples test positive for Legionella

Five people tested positive for Legionnaires’ disease during an outbreak at the new St. John’s on Fountain Lake campus during the summer.

Once water samples from the facility tested positive for Legionella in July, water restrictions were put in place, including only drinking bottled water, not using ice machines and not using water sprayers.

Legionnaires’ disease is a type of bacterial pneumonia that can be severe, making prompt diagnosis and antibiotic treatment important, the Health Department said. Symptoms include fever, fatigue, headache, muscle aches, chills, shortness of breath, loss of appetite and coughing. The disease is spread by inhaling aerosols from water sources containing Legionella bacteria, and it is not spread from person to person.

St. John’s said it worked diligently to discover where the source was and how to remedy it.

The Minnesota Department of Health said epidemiologic, environmental and laboratory investigations indicate the St. John’s building water system “was the most likely source for the infections.”

St. John’s treated spigots on the water mains, and by the beginning of September, the outbreak was considered to be over.

Chlorine levels in the facility’s water main, sinks, showers and residents’ apartments were expected to be monitored on a monthly basis for at least six months to a year to ensure amounts were high enough to kill bacteria.


Honorable mentions

• With the signature of Gov. Mark Dayton of the bonding bill in May, Riverland Community College was awarded  $10.2 million to relocate its truck driving and collision programs from Austin to Albert Lea and the final funding was awarded to connect sewer and water lines to the Stables area.

• Myre-Big Island State Park was named the eighth top tourist attraction in southern Minnesota, according to results of a survey released by Explore Minnesota in November.

• Albert Lea made the list in two nationwide rankings. One ranked the city No. 5 in a list of Top 10 Affordable Small Towns Where You’d Actually Want to Live, in a ranking compiled by The second ranked Albert Lea as one of the top 50 cities to live, according to national publication 24/7 Wall Street using a weighted index of more than two dozen measures.

• J.D. Carlson, former deputy director of the Albert Lea Police Department, became the new Albert Lea public safety director. Police Lt. Darren Hanson became the new deputy director. 

• Downtown Albert Lea continued to see new businesses open, including Junktion Market, Daisy Blue Naturals and Heartwaves Studio.

• Albert Lea sees the opening of Qdoba near Northbridge Mall. It was also announced that Taco Bell will be coming to Trail’s Travel Center.

• The first year of Walk to End Alzheimer’s in Albert Lea was a big success.



Top 20 news stories online

The following are the most-clicked on stories at from Jan. 1 through Dec. 24:

1. Dec. 20: “2 in custody after chase, search in downtown,” 13,803 pageviews

2. June 29: “1 injured in Albert Lea shooting,” 11,327 pageviews

3. May 8: “Check here for Albert Lea Area Schools referendum results,” 10,927 pageviews

4. Nov. 6: “2018 local election results,” 9,976 pageviews

5. April 18: “Albert Lea Herberger’s to close,” 9,637 pageviews

6. May 29: “It makes you wonder what’s really going on,” 8,699 pageviews

7. Nov. 16: “Minnesota, Iowa authorities looking for Freeborn County offender,” 8,603 pageviews

8.  May 8: “Albert Lea police investigating string of burglaries,” 8,184 pageviews

9. April 30: “Glenville man charged for allegedly molesting girl,” 7,681 pageviews

10. Aug. 5: “Attempted abduction reported at Freeborn County Fair,” 7,349 pageviews

11. Dec. 17: “Freeborn County Fair announces Grandstand lineup for 2019,” 7,211 pageviews

12. Sept. 26: “Albert Lea teacher arrested for cocaine possession,” 6,872 pageviews

13. Oct. 19: “‘Our hearts are broken:’ Community gathers to remember 9th-grader,” 6,790 pageviews

14. Aug. 13: “12-year-old drags and injures mother with truck, crashes into neighbor’s deck,” 6,710 pageviews

15. Feb. 23: “Sheriff’s Office sergeant charged in deer hunting with bait,” 6,709 pageviews

16. June 8: “Former Albert Lea doctor, wife die in Illinois car crash,” 6,520 pageviews

17. Feb. 21: “Car crashes into Lakeview Elementary,” 6,483 pageviews

18. May 10: “Treat them like family: Area says goodbye as OB-GYN nears retirement,” 6,231 pageviews

19. May 14: “Bystander saves child from drowning at Albert Lea Y,” 6,075 pageviews

20. May 4: “Offender to be released from prison next week, move back to Albert Lea,” 5,646 pageviews